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Team digs for Civil War artifacts on the South Side

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Updated: November 27, 2013 6:13AM

Mere feet from a Bronzeville elementary school and playground, at least a dozen college students and volunteers dug into the ground with tiny shovels — centimeter by centimeter — to try to find remnants of the Civil War-era Camp Douglas.

About four hours into the dig Friday at 33rd and Giles, DePaul University senior Jackelyn Hackett smiled and held up a find: a window handle.

The handle is almost certainly from a later era, but every shovelful gets the team closer to its goal.

“We’re just seeing little bits and pieces, but once we look at all the matter from this upper level, we may be able to get a sense of what it means,” said Dr. Mike Gregory, a DePaul University professor and archaeologist, who is leading a four-day excavation.

It may be hard to imagine now, but the land where Pershing East Magnet School stands was once part of Camp Douglas, which served as a training center for some 40,000 Union soldiers from 1861 until 1865 — one of eight Union camps to train African-American soldiers. The sprawling camp had about 200 buildings on some 60 acres of land.

Last year, an excavation at 32nd and Rhodes uncovered what is believed to be a piece of the foundation of the camp’s headquarters building. Volunteers also found a pipe, believed to have belonged to a soldier, according to David Keller, director of the Camp Douglas Restoration Foundation.

This year’s dig is targeting an area where thousands of Confederate prisoners were housed.

“This area was called Prisoner’s Square and in 1864 this is where the prisoners were housed in barracks, running from Giles just about to King Drive,” Keller said. “The most that were held was about 12,000.”

The camp has the unfortunate distinction of having more Confederate soldier deaths than any other Union prison camp due to diseases such as smallpox, Keller says. Oak Woods Cemetery, the site where thousands of Confederate soldiers were buried is the largest mass grave in the Western Hemisphere, he says.

The goal of the excavation isn’t just to find artifacts, and confirm where things once were, but to add to the South Side neighborhood’s history: “We’re very interested in Bronzeville. So as you dig, you’re digging through a community’s history,” Keller said.

Students and volunteers are using trowels, or tiny shovels to dig 10 centimeters at a time, then level the ground. The dirt is shoveled into a feeder machine, which is screened through a quarter-inch mesh to find any artifacts. The goal is to dig up to four feet, with every layer uncovering more of the history of the land.

The top layer will show the fill used for a modern schoolyard. Underneath, excavators might find demolition material from rowhouses that were torn down in the 1960s, then a layer of material used in the early 1900s when the land was home to another school, Gregory said. Below, they should find construction materials from the late 1800s, and finally, perhaps some artifacts from Camp Douglas.

Gregory said he hopes the dig brings attention to Chicago’s link to the Civil War: “When you study the Civil War, you say, well it doesn’t have anything to do with Chicago. Well, yeah, it does. And when you start delving deeper and deeper, you always hear about the southern prisons but you never hear about the northern prisons…The Union focus after the war focused on the southern ones because they were the victors. Camp Douglas sort of disappeared.”


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